Eilat to Tel Aviv

By David Cogswell

After two nights in Eilat, the 40 agents on Isramís Seminar at the Source clambered into our two giant coaches once again and headed north. Our destination was Tel Aviv. Our route cut through Israel from the southern tip that borders the Red Sea up to the northwestern part of the country, bordering the eastern end of the Mediterranean.

Our tour director Shmuel unfolded his personal copy of the Isram map of Israel, specially marked up to illustrate his discussions of Israel geography and politics, and mounted it at the front of the coach where he could point to it with his flashlight pointer beam. The trip was broken into short segments between stops at various points of interest.

Our route took us through the Negev Desert and after a short drive we stopped at the Makhtesh Ramon Nature Reserve, an area staked out around the Makhtesh Ramon, a giant crater in the vast desolate landscape of the desert. The crater is massive, 25 miles long. Though it looks much like a volcanic crater or a scar from a meteorological impact, it was actually formed by geological forces: the folding of layers of rock, water erosion and weather. The nature reserveís grounds include the crater and the surrounding Negev Mountains. From the visitors center on the edge of the crater we could see vividly the contour of the crater, its cliff-like edge and the precipitous drop down into the inside of the crater 500 meters below. It was one of those experiences that makes you feel microscopic, like an infinitesimal dot against the backdrop of vast geological times and spaces.

Next we stopped in Avdat, an ancient city of the Nabateans, the same people who built Petra. At a little shop called the Avdat Data Shop we watched a short film about the Nabateans, who were masters of the spice trade routes because they were the only people who figured out how to navigate across the vast deserts, and they could even travel at night. They developed cisterns, which enabled them to gather rain water, which freed them from dependence on water sources. They became the master transporters of goods in the ancient world. Avdat was one of the stations on the spice routes.

We reassembled on the coaches and headed north again, stopping next at the last home of Israelís first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, on a kibbutz in the Negev desert. Ben-Gurion moved there in 1953 when he resigned from office. Sometimes called a hut, I would call it a very modest desert home where Ben-Gurion and his wife Paula lived in his last years. It is kept exactly as it was when he died in 1973, as per his last will and testament.

A young woman who welcomed us to the site told us the exhibit is not intended to teach its visitors all about Ben-Gurion. It is only meant to show where he lived at the end of his life. We did, nevertheless, learn some fascinating things about Ben-Gurion from seeing where he lived, and hearing the comments of the hostess. He didnít believe in sleep, thought it was a waste of time, so he only slept three or four hours a night. He became concerned at some point that he may be losing his memory, so he took to standing on his head. He was not religious, but he loved the Bible. He saw it as a historical document.

The table by his bed was stacked with stacks of books, 50 or 100, and on top of them, lying open on its face was the book O Jerusalem, by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, presumably a book he was reading when he died. The walls of his bedroom were bare except for one framed picture, a portrait of Ghandi. There was an office with thousands of books in glass-doored bookcases, books of history, politics and philosophy. In the living room there were three more portraits, of Moses, Plato and Abraham Lincoln.

At the park next to the Kibbutz we ate our lunch, which we had prepared that morning before we left the Rimonim Neptune hotel in Eilat. Then we headed north again, for Tel Aviv. That was the longest stretch of driving, so Shmuel put away his map, turned off the lectures and invited us to nap, if we wanted to. By late afternoon the outskirts of Tel Aviv began to appear around us. As the buildings increased in density we came alongside of the Mediterranean, a blazing bright silver, reflecting the sun as it lowered toward the western horizon. The ocean was turbulent that day. Foamy waves rose up and crashed down violently on the beach. As we drove deeper into the central business district, the city seemed to rise around us. The busy urban environment was electrical, people moving here and there on the sidewalks and in cars.

While Jerusalem is deeply imbedded in religion and history, Tel Aviv in contrast is a modern, secular world city, only a hundred years old this year. The buzz, the energy in the air was palpable. It reminded me of New York in that sense.

Tel Aviv was founded in 1909 at the outskirts of Jaffa, one of the oldest ports in the world. The population of Tel Aviv is approaching 400,000, but the surrounding metropolitan area is home to 3.5 million people. Tel Aviv is Israelís business center, the home to the countryís stock exchange. Itís also a beach city, with a glorious strip where most of the major hotels are gathered.

Our first stop was at the Dan Tel Aviv Hotel, a prestigious property that has hosted Hillary Clinton, Phil Collins, Paul McCartney, Sharon Stone and Mikhail Gorbachev. We were shown around the property by Anat Zingel, its director of sales. The hotel was on the beach strip, with great views of the Mediterranean. It had a traditional, conservative dťcor, with striking paintings, statues and plants to brighten it up.

After our hotel inspection we checked into our hotels. I stayed at the Carlton, which was also along the beach. My room had stunning views of the ocean and the shoreline. It was a luxurious, comfortable hotel with friendly service and a bright, comfy business lounge on my floor, with snacks available throughout the day and evening. Felix Hassid, Isramís operations manager and the mastermind of this trip, said Tel Avivís most popular hotel is Hilton, which was the next hotel on the strip, but a comfortable distance away. Tel Avivís most luxurious hotel is the InterContinental. The Dan Tel Aviv attracts the big celebrities when they visit Tel Aviv. And that night we had dinner at one of the most amazing hotels I have had the pleasure of visiting.

The Crown Plaza City Center is not part of the beachside strip where Tel Avivís most popular hotels congregate. Itís located in the business and shopping district of the city in the new Tel Aviv City Center, which is in itself quite an attraction. Itís identified by a landmark cluster of three skyscrapers with spectacularly distinct shapes. One is a circle, one a triangle and one a square. I was told the shapes symbolize the three religions that claim Israel as holy ground: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Crowne Plaza hotel takes up 12 floors of the Square Tower.

The Crowne Plaza caters to a business clientele, but its architecture and interior design is so innovative and bright that it would be a great place to stay for fun too. From the massive spectacle of the three glittering towers, to the interior design of the restaurants, public spaces and guestrooms, every detail transmitted a message of lively intelligence, novelty and playfulness. It was all coordinated into a unified whole that enlivened the experience of being there. We had dinner at a restaurant named for its location on The 11th Floor. After driving nearly the length of Israel that day, the food was heavenly, and, as would be expected, beautifully and cleverly presented.

Tel Aviv was our last stop on the Isram Seminar at the Source. We planned to stay three nights, with an excursion to the north the next day, a half-day tour of Tel Aviv followed by free time, and then a free day for preparing our return.

To be continued. For earlier reports on the Isram Seminar at the Source see: A First Time in Israel,t http://www.travelpulse.com/Resources/Editorial.aspx?n=51877, An Education in Israel, http://www.travelpulse.com/Resources/Editorial.aspx?n=52180 and Dead Sea to Red Sea, http://www.travelpulse.com/Resources/Editorial.aspx?n=52539 For more information on IsramWorld, see www.isram.com. -- David Cogswell

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